KEARNEY, Neb. — After a few days of on-the-road food, I was desperate for something different — and hopefully healthier. Along the way, I’ve been doing my best with dried fruit, mixed nuts and water in an effort to try not turn into a roadtrip pig. But I’ve had my fair share of fast food, too.
By the time I arrived in Kearney, I was exhausted. The drive from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with all of my stops, took me longer than I had planned for. I was thinking about checking out one of the downtown brewpubs, either Cunningham’s Journal or Thunderhead Brewing Company, but I wasn’t up for beer and when I drove by, they were packed.
Yelp pointed me to Hunan Chinese, which reviewers had indicated was “[h]onestly, probably the best Chinese in a 100 mile radius” and when considering all of the local restaurant offerings is “[a]s good as it gets for Kearney.” It wasn’t downtown but it was close to my hotel. And some Chinese food sounded good at the moment.
I have a soft spot for Chinese restaurants in the United States. I used to work at a fairly Spartan-looking Chinese take-out operation in high school. Over many generations, Chinese restaurants in the United States have become a critically important part of the American culinary footprint. The first Chinese restaurants in the U.S. opened during the California Gold Rush in mining towns — “Caucasian miners feared, ridiculed and discriminated against the Chinese, but loved their food,” according to the Sacramento Bee — but overtime, spread east, to places just like Kearney.
“What began in this country as exotic has become thoroughly American,” The New York Times wrote in 2004.
Recently, I’ve been seeking out more and more traditional Chinese cooking on my travels and when I can Sichuan food in particular. This has included some knock-out dishes at Han Dynasty in Philadelphia and great meals in Penang, Malaysia, where Chinese merchants brought their cooking traditions to the British outpost at George Town. I also recently ventured to Fredericksburg, Va., about an hour from Washington, D.C., to sample the cooking of acclaimed former Chinese Embassy chef Peter Chang. The chef has a bit of a cult following and has a somewhat mysterious track record of disappearing and reappearing in a random city with a new restaurant located in a seemingly nondescript strip mall. Chang has bigger plans for bringing his food to larger audiences.
Perhaps, Chang’s cooking will appear here in Kearney someday. In the meantime at Hunan Chinese, I knew I would likely be getting standard Americanized Chinese favorites, but that was OK. My stomach wanted some crab rangoon.